Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2015

Since my groundbreaking Top Five of 2014 album chart last December, my loyal readers have been waiting all year to learn what were the hottest jams of Queen Harvest’s 2015. Let me tell you, this year did not disappoint. Every album was new to me, and some were even new to normal people. I laughed; I cried; I learned; I loved; I lived; I died; I came back from the dead; I terrorized Tokyo; I cried again—Whatta year! My Top 5 albums of 2015, in a very particular order:

5. Bossanova (Pixies, 1990). Favorite song: “Is She Weird”Bossanova

My guiding principle in music is that an artist or album will reach me when I am ready for it, and not a moment before. I received Bossanova for Christmas circa 2000 and did not listen to one note until early 2015. (My ignorance was so complete that i imagined the Pixies were a female ensemble until about track 3.) The time was on the money for this fun and freaky album. The space rock sound is engaging and unlike any other music in my library. The far out lyrics match the offbeat music flawlessly. I don’t understand a single song, and that thrills me. The mystery does not dissipate with repeated listenings. The eerie feeling evoked by Bossanova is comparable to watching an episode of The Twilight Zone or reading an H.G. Wells novel. It took 15 years, but Bossanova was worth the wait.

4. Blue (Joni Mitchell, 1971). Favorite song: “All I Want”

BlueFolk music had its heyday in the early 1960s, and singer-songwriters exploded mid-way through the decade. In 1971’s Blue, Joni Mitchell puts on a clinic showcasing the highest form of both simple folk music and personal songwriting. In both arenas, Mitchell’s work is at once acoustically clear and structurally complex, easy to grasp and deeply profound. Her voice rings with an uncommon unity of delicacy and power, delivering the words of a master poet. The highs of Blue are high, but the lows drop you down like stone in still water. Mitchell lives out the truth Khalil Gibran wrote, “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.” Within the song “My Old Man,” the presence or absence of her love brings the singer from “the warmest chord I ever heard” to when “me and those lonesome blue collide.” She has lived so much, and through Blue I feel more life. Blue set the standard for all breakup albums, and I don’t know if it’s been matched yet.

3. Thunderbitch (Thunderbitch, 2015). Favorite song: “Very Best Friend”Thunderbitch

Take a trip with me, friends, back to late August 2015. Sound and Color has been burning up the charts for months. Alabama Shakes’ second album demonstrated their flexibility and development, and relieved any fear of them being a one-trick pony. Two weeks earlier I got to see Brittany Howard putting all of herself into live show in Tuscaloosa, inducing a high from which I had yet to come down. Then, one average afternoon, Howard on her strangely under-followed Twitter account tweets “curious about thunderbitch?” with a Youtube link. Two or three mystery clicks later and I’m downloading an album that sounds more 1978 than 2015.
Howard is frequently compared to Janis Joplin because no one can name a true equivalent among female vocalists. Her power and rawness are more like Jerry Lee Lewis. He is a wild man; Brittany is a self-described “Wild Child.” Thunderbitch sounds more like New York Dolls than Pearl. Like their bio states, Thunderbitch is about pure rock and roll. Every song is infused with the energy that comes from love of the music. Sometimes the energy is bounding outward, like “Eastside Party;” sometimes the energy is just barely pinned down, like “Closer.” The lyrics nevertheless express the honest emotion that characterizes Howard’s writing, culminating in the forceful finale “Heavenly Feeling.” Other people celebrate a Beyonce midnight release or a U2 mass distribution. Thunderbitch is the most exciting album release I’ve ever personally experienced and an album worth the fervor.

2. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast, 2015). Favorite song: “Wait For It”

HamiltonThe cast recording of Hamilton has been a blessing and a curse. I am blessed to live in a world graced by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. I am cursed by the obsession that sweeps over every listener of Hamilton like a contagion. Hamilton is a pandemic, and I am stricken. So much more than a hip-hop musical, Hamilton spins a historical narrative into full-scale drama. The cast is chock full of unique personalities, each with his or her own voice and motivations. Miranda humanizes Aaron Burr, transforming a faceless historical name into a complex tragic figure. The brilliant Thomas Jefferson is snappy and sassy. Hamilton, Washington, the Schuyler sisters—everyone is alive and sympathetic, intelligent and mortal. All the facts and drama are communicated through masterful literary technique. Verses and phrases that are plenty moving in one context are then repurposed in a different context to elicit an entirely different set of emotions. I get goosebumps from the recurrence of “Satisfied” in “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” and I choke up hearing Hamilton mirror Eliza’s words in “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Musical themes are also employed and repeated to great effect. I don’t pretend to know anything about rap, but I know I love “Guns and Ships” and the whole dang show. Hamilton is breaking down the door of a new era of musicals, while embodying everything that traditionally makes a musical great. Lyrics, music, characters, drama, humor, and like any musical worth its salt, the second act of Hamilton is terribly sad. After all this, I have to remind myself that I’ve never even seen the show, and likely won’t for a long time. I am cursed with the longing, but blessed by the hope.

1. Talking Heads: 77 (Talking Heads, 1977 [of course]). Favorite song: “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”Talking Heads- 77

In record time, Talking Heads rose to join my personal pantheon of favorite musicians/bands. Talking Heads: 77, the band’s first album, I will say is my favorite, primarily because I don’t yet grasp “Drugs” or “The Overload.” Every time I listen to Talking Heads: 77 the sound is fresh, the pace is brisk, and the lyrics pack a punch. “Psycho Killer” takes you into the mind of the man who is so annoyed at everyone that he takes a hands-on approach to the problem. One questions whether David Byrne identifies with the titular killer, since “No Compassion” speaks from a similar irritation at people who are “in love with [their] problems” and talk to him instead of their analyst (“isn’t that what they’re paid for?”). This curmudgeonly attitude, which I often share, is countered by the upbeat and offbeat positivity of several other songs, like “Pulled Up” and “Don’t Worry About the Government.” The vocal parts in many tracks, particularly “Tentative Decisions” and “Happy Day,” benefit from the playfulness of someone who is supremely creative but not a top-rate vocalist. Singers treat their voices as wind instruments, but Byrne uses his as the rhythm section, too. Listening to Talking Heads: 77 fills me with joy, and so does listening to More Songs About Buildings And Food, Remain In Light, and The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, but who wants a Top Five that is all Talking Heads and Hamilton?

Honorable Mentions:

a. Book of Mormon! (Original Broadway Cast, 2011). I was lucky enough to see this show when it came to Birmingham early 2015. BOM! has all the humor, smarts, and filthiness one expects from the South Park guys. The storyline is truly inspired, and the end is arresting. My favorite moment on the soundtrack is probably in “Man Up” when Elder Cunningham keeps singing “Time ta time ta!”

b. Sound and Color (Alabama Shakes, 2015). As mentioned above, I love this band, and I love this album. Brittany Howard’s voice on “Guess Who” is hypnotic. “Future People” and “Don’t Wanna Fight” should be instant rock standards. Howard explained in concert that “This Feeling” is about her happiness in achieving success in music, and now it makes me cry. “Gemini” is “Over My Head,” you might say, but a little experimentation never hurt anybody. I believe Howard when she sings, “I never meant to be the greatest; I only ever wanted to be your baby.” Well, too bad! You are the greatest.

c. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976). I’ve loved the TPATH hits since I was tiny, but I first listened to some of their albums this year. Their first album is energizing and every track is solid. “Luna” is a haunting song I’m glad to finally hear. I didn’t know “American Girl” well, but now it has to be a favorite of mine. Nothing is more fun than “Rockin’ Around (With You)” and “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll.” Good stuff!

Advertisements

Queen Harvest’s 2015 Reading Recap

Learning that a friend read over 200 books last year compelled me to reevaluate my reading habits. A voracious reader as a child, I had let various distractions take priority over my time, even though reading continued to bring me joy and satisfaction. I read maybe five books in 2014, and I found that unacceptable. So I set a goal: 30 books in 2015 and hopefully knock out a handful of those classics I never got around to. This decision has been very gratifying.

Ferris Reading

An asterisk indicates that I listened to an audio recording of the work. I recognize that listening is not the same as reading, but my goal was to absorb great literature in the place of podcasts and other brain candy. There are certain writers and works I have avoided reading for whatever reason, and listening to audiobooks is certainly preferable to a dramatization or not reading altogether.

The following are listed in the order in which I finished them.

1. *The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
After several years of knowing I should read Hemingway but not actually bringing myself to read Hemingway, I decided to just get it over with by listening to an audiobook version of this novel. I enjoyed the hell out of it and will happily consume my next Hemingway novel with my eyes.

2. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I began this book in the fall of the previous year and finished it in January. I wrote about it here.
tl;dr Too long. Don’t read.

3. Hamlet, Shakey
I reread this play as a follow-up to Infinite Jest. It is always striking to see just how many phrases and quotes that we take for granted are packed into this, and many other, Shakespeare plays. While reading this one I decided to read a Shakespeare play a month for good health.

4. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
I loved Bryson’s books on the English language (especially Made In America and The Mother Tongue), so I was really jazzed to get into this travelogue. Turns out, as inferred from his self-reported interpersonal interactions, he’s kind of a prick.

22 Jump Street

Not the title of Catch-22, but tell that to my brain.

5. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5, and Fahrenheit 451 make up the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate. I did not expect the war novel Catch-22 to be as funny, playful, and engaging as it is. I see what all the hype is about, and I dig it.

 

6. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
This novella had me crying by the second page. There is little to say about the classics that doesn’t sound trite and unoriginal. Every sentence of Of Mice and Men is necessary and gorgeous.

7. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The film captured the tone, rhythm, plot—everything but the English accents. I enjoy the ego boost of a music snob liking some of my favorite music; I shouldn’t.

8. Much Ado About Nothing, The Shakester
No modern movie rom-com comes close to the hijinks and goofiness in Shakespeare’s comedies. Reading this play helped me get a LearnedLeague answer, and much of Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More” comes from the final act.

9. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez wrote this novel after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s like, leave some literary genius for the rest of us, Gabe!

10. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
This book opened my eyes to the world when I first read it a few years ago. I reread it this year as a refresher and so I could more confidently defend the Harry Potter series as the great mythology of my generation.

11. A Kid’s Matinee, Joseph Britt
This compelling story of YA fiction is due to hit bookshelves any day. Buy a copy for your tween. It’ll grow hair on his knuckles.

12. Richard III, Shakeman
Gilmore Girls references this play more than any other, so after my TV binging I knew it was high time to read it. Holy smokes, this is a good one. My reading happily coincided with the reinterment of the King’s bones, so I could take a greater interest in the most interesting archaeological find of recent years.

Esmeralda

This is a photograph of me.

13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
I am not familiar with the Disney movie, so I didn’t have any unreasonable expectations of happiness for this book. Nevertheless it is bleak. Exciting, beautiful, wonderful, but bleak.

14. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
This book makes me want to evangelize to the people: Read it! Absorb its lessons! Write your Congressperson! Also, it is nothing but traffic talk, so reading it has the effect on your nerves of sitting in traffic. Worth reading regardless.

15. What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland
I’ve been meaning to read this book since I bought it as a gift for someone who never read it 10+ years ago. It is best read as a companion to the pieces discussed, which is not how I read it.

16. Julius Caesar, The Shakinator
I had not remembered just how much action occurs after fall Caesar. Very exciting play where 87% of the characters have names beginning with “C.”

17. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende moves through several generations of families, with names and old mistakes repeated. The handful of Latin American or Spanish novels I have read share similar themes in the style of magical realism. Thinking about this further, I realized that I absolutely think about the Latin side of my family in terms of generations repeating patterns and the influences each makes on the next generation’s life. There must be something in the water.

18. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, Lars Brownworth
I read this history of the Byzantine Empire both to prepare for a LearnedLeague quiz (I got 8/12) and because I’ve always wanted to know more about it. Western centrism lets us ignore the fact that the Roman Empire lasted for another thousand years in the East, and it was a pretty interesting millennium.

19. Othello, Shakenbake
Will doesn’t hold back when it comes to the racial insults, though I’m sure those included are tame for the time and of course they are necessary to the disposition of the characters. This play beautifully imparts the universal emotions of love, jealousy, sadness, and anger; it breaks my heart.

20. Notes From a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Pevear and Volokhonsky

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. I would like to be them.

I snap up every Dostoevsky I come across translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the fabulous duo that is not afraid to deviate from long-accepted title translations. I was a little disappointed that this book really is a collection of notes, rather than a true narrative. It is, nonetheless, often gripping, poetic, and illuminating.

 

21. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Classics of a certain stature (especially the ones many people read in school) usually have their most distinctive scenes become common cultural knowledge. I know how Anna Karenina ends; I know Leo Bloom’s wife steps out. I was not expecting the final image of this book one bit. Also: what a fantastic novel.

22. Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, Adam Resnik
I had high hopes for this collection of humorous essays, but the author’s overwhelming cynicism and misanthropy did not entertain me.

23. We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ long and prolific career has touched many generations, and I’m proud to be part of the new wave that got into her through her Twitter account. #Millennial This story of a family unit that crumbled to pieces crumbled me to pieces.

24. The Martian, Andy Weir
The Martian bandwagon was definitely worth jumping on. This quick read has just enough science to be believable, but not so much that galoots like myself get bored or bogged down. The movie version is fun, but loses the sense of individual struggle that is the heart of the novel. The globe unites to bring him home, but he survived months of Mars’s desolation completely alone.

25. Twelfth Night, Slick Willy
I have observed that many men think homosexuality is very funny, especially when a guy is tricked into feelings for another man. This is exploited in cases where a man is attracted to a man he thinks is a woman (see: Some Like It Hot, White Chicks, Tootsie) and where a man is doesn’t understand why he is attracted to a woman he thinks is a man (see: Twelfth Night, She’s The Man).

26. Success Through Stillness, Russell Simmons
All meditation books are the same: 98% explaining why you should meditate, medical/health/happiness benefits of meditating, meditation success stories, etc; 2% how to meditate. (This is because meditation is very simple and can be done without the help of books NOTE TO SELF.) Simmons really wants you to know about all the drugs he’s done, women he’s chased, and money he’s earned, which is not the usual spiel of enlightened teachers. Of course, he can speak to an entirely difference audience, not just folks who are already crunching it up at yoga and sipping on home-brewed kombucha.

Danubia

Look at how gorgeous this cover is!

27. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
I picked up this history of the Habsburg family after hearing their name peppered across centuries of history lessons. Winder’s approach to their story is delightful. I would have appreciated it more if I had a better working knowledge of European history—a a goal Danubia inspired me to pursue.

28. Dubliners, James Joyce
These stories are so simple but rich in character and emotion. As each story ends I’m sure something has transformed, but I can’t put my finger on what.

29. *The Iliad, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
It’s kind of hard to sympathize with Achilles and Agamemnon’s beef. They cannot stop whining about who gets to keep a sex slave for himself—not relatable. Clearly Achilles is in love with Patroclus, anyway.

30. Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor

Katie Reading on the Beach

My father’s daughter.

Listening to A Prairie Home Companion with my family was a sweet part of my childhood. Reding the stories from Keillor’s prime felt like a cozy return.

31. Macbeth, The Bardman
To continue my series, So That’s What That Play Is About?, it does not take much at all to get Macbeth to murdering.

32. Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman
My brother gave me this almanac of fake trivia several years ago and started me on a path of wonder and joy that is John Hodgman. Hodgman is the kind of humorist I most admire, relate to, and aspire to be. Well-educated, but not pedantic; clever, but not mean; proper but not prudish.

33. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
Read on Judge John Hodgman’s orders, I devoured this book like nothing else this year. Graves breathes life, with all its dreams, failures, and murderous relatives, into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. I, Claudius was published in 1934, and every piece of historical fiction written in the last 80 years has only tried to match its greatness.

34. More Information Than You Require, John Hodgman
The second in Hodgman’s trilogy of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, we get to see his transformation from a former literary agent into a minor television personality. Also useful as a page-a-day calendar. Note: I was Hodgman-heavy during this part of the year in preparation for seeing him perform live. He’s the best.

35. *The Odyssey, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
Contrary to the impression given by the dramatizations I’ve seen, the adventures of Odysseus take a small part of the total poem. I love the characterization of Penelope. It is lovely to see a foundational work of Western civilization portray women as strong, wise, and level-headed.

36. The Tempest, William Shakespeare
A wonderful play that I would very much like to see performed. Somewhere along the line I learned that the words “Caribbean,” “cannibal,” and “caliban” are all etymologically related, which is just interesting.

37. The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
The most exciting part of this book happens before the narrative begins. The rest is paperback-poor dialog, unsympathetic characters, and unnecessary action. Maybe the TV series is better.

38. Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The telepathic gorilla is something I never quite got over, but I appreciate the message. I was genuinely surprised by some of the positions advocated. The message does not follow the save-the-world party line, which was interesting and provoking.

39. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
What Birdman did with unbroken continuity in film. Mrs. Dalloway did first. Like Dostoevsky, Woolf is one of the few authors who can capture the erratic, insecure, fluid nature of human thought. Perhaps that is revealing of my personal stream of consciousness, but I see great truth in her characters’ inner monologues. (For reference, I think Hal’s “stream of consciousness” toward the end of Infinite Jest is god-awful.)

40. Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
There is an interesting contrast between post-Office Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy and superstar Why Not Me? Mindy. Both Mindys make me laugh hysterically, but I’m afraid Mindy’s officially gone Hollywood. To be fair, she covered much of her pre-star life in the first book, so this one had to present the world as she lives it. Please keep writing, Mindy. I love you.

41. As You Like It, Big Boy Bill
The titles of Shakespeare’s comedies are often so vague it’s infuriating. Lots of silly name-changing and gender-bending in this one, but very enjoyable.

42. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth
I am so grateful to the friend that recommended The Etymologicon to me. One of the great blessings of my life is to be a native speaker of English, and this book brings out dozens of the wonderful, colorful, meaningful relationships and associations shared by English words and phrases. Truly a delight.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 4.53.04 PM

That face.

43. The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies
The final installment in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus seems to have more plot lines and characters than necessary. Nevertheless, the novel wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, with a full measure of Davies’ unfailing wisdom and mirth.

 

44. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The second of the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate, I am alarmed by how similar this dystopian America is to present America. The dream of constant entertainment is more feasible than ever, and the dumbing down of art is rampant. I can also see how an angsty teenage boy could focus his identity on this novel.

45. King Lear, The Pride of Stratford
Lear and his selfish daughters break my heart. Also, how dare Gloucester name his sons Edgar and Edmund? As if I didn’t already need a family tree cheat sheet.

46. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
While Atlas Shrugged is certainly political, The Fountainhead is about the strength of the individual to honor the abilities and desires and truth within, instead of acting and thinking at the pleasure of other people. At its core, The Fountainhead echoes the often misinterpreted exhortation of Joseph Campbell to Follow Your Bliss.

47. The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, J.C. Beckett
Published in 1966, you better know your English history before going in because there will be no stopping to explain. This book focuses in painstaking detail on over three hundred years of Irish parliaments and political leaders. I learned a great deal about the politics of Ireland (which of course involves religious issues), but I will need to look elsewhere for its cultural history.

48. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (twice), James Joyce
There are only two books I have ever restarted the day I finished them: this and Notes from Underground. What they have in common: nontraditional structure that is only visible in hindsight, layers of meaning and symbolism that reward additional readings, very short.

49. *Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
After starting and stopping this behemoth a couple of times on paper, the audiobook helped me power through the more technical digressions without giving up entirely. I really do love Melville’s writing, and I am always pleasantly surprised by his humor. Writers like Melville make me proud to be an American.

50. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Coming in just before the deadline, I completed the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate with great success. Horrifying, darkly humorous, and educational in a variety of areas, Slaughterhouse-Five was more similar to Catch-22 than I actually expected. Where Heller communicated the incommunicable realities of war as absurdities, Vonnegut treats them as science fiction. Each effectively convey the psychological effects of war in ways gritty military tales and histories can fall short.

51. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
A tale perfectly told. Wharton’s prose conveys the desperation and despair of the poor who cannot afford to live out their dreams.

52. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This December, I was much more worried about the ending of this novel being spoiled than learning the twists of Star Wars. That The Awakening was published in 1899 is incredible; that Chopin could barely publish afterwards and that the novel was “rediscovered” in the 1960s is very believable. Between this one and Ethan Frome, I’ve learned that being heartsick in the late 19th century had one particularly drastic solution.

The five that I most enjoyed and am most likely to read again are Catch-22, The Etymologicon, Richard III, I, Claudius, and Mrs. Dalloway.

Reading more and watching less enriched my 2015. Only seven of the works on this list were written by women, and that is a bias I intend to work on in the coming year(s). My to-read list is long and ever-growing. On to the next one!